Saturday, January 21, 2012

Belly Dance and Religion: A Conversion Story

Many loose ends have come together for me since last May, which in Catholic tradition is Mary's month, but I didn't know that at the time. Since then I have undergone two conversions, one in the world of belly dance, and the other in the realm of religion. Only today have I realized the connection, and that is what I wish to share in this article.

Every year in May I attend the Island of Isis Dance Retreat in Loveland, Ohio, near Cincinnati, organized by my beautiful sisters in the dance, Conchi and Nataj. The town is historic and picturesque, and the Grailville Center where the event is held is holy ground. Last May our teacher was Hadia of Canada, who in addition to possessing over 30 years of belly dance experience is also a master of Flamenco and Turkish Rom (Gypsy) and is a massage and manual therapist. Up till this point in my dance career, I had mostly focused on an American concoction of belly dance know as Tribal, a "fusion" of Middle Eastern, Gypsy, Spanish flamenco, and North African dance styles. I put the word "fusion" in quotes, because as I learned from Hadia, that is not an accurate term in the way it is often applied to Tribal belly dance. To be a true fusion form, the dancer must be a master in all the forms being fused. This was not the case with the origins of American Tribal Style belly dance in the San Francisco Bay area, and it is generally not the case today.

I had begun belly dancing in a style that my teacher described as "Egyptian Cabaret." However, through the phenomenal instruction I have received over the years at Island of Isis, I have come to understand that much of what I learned was actually Lebanese, so for years I was confused. Also, at the particular studio where I began my training, I learned to dance through choreography and as part of a troupe. There were many gaps in my learning of the most basic steps, and I did not learn to dance on my own. The very nature of Middle Eastern dance is that this art form is traditionally performed as a solo dance, albeit often in a social setting. I was, quite frankly, impoverished in the area of solo technique. And once I had discovered it, I clung to my Tribal style, which is a group improvisational dance.

That is, until Hadia. Over the weekend of the retreat, I was slowly persuaded to authentic Egyptian dance. I struggled back and forth in my mind regarding the authenticity of Tribal belly dance. I had to admit that while it is inspired by those cultures mentioned above, and it contains a movement vocabulary and aesthetic qualities akin to those forms, it is ultimately its own thing. Tribal is Tribal, as Egyptian dancers had repeatedly tried to explain to me.

The moment of my conversion happened Friday evening, after Hadia's explanation of "Body Logistics," in which she taught us how to dance safely from the perspective of her in depth knowledge of anatomy. We learned to get out of the "squatting" position that most of us are taught from day one of belly dance classes, and she broke us out of "arm prison." This completely natural orientation of posture and movement is truly Egyptian. Both sides of the Cabaret vs. Tribal debate had missed the point. It's not about costuming or dancing flat-footed vs. dancing on the ball of the foot. My friends, it's about the Baladi. It all comes back to the Baladi. If you don't believe me, read Hossam Ramzy's and Hadia's online articles.

It was Friday after the class, alone in my room, when I had my moment of epiphany. I was listening to a Golden Era of Egyptian Belly Dance CD that I had just purchased, and all I can tell you is that the music seeped into the pores of my skin and transformed me at the cellular level. I got it. I finally understood. And I'm sorry, but I can't explain it to you. It was nothing less than a religious experience. I knew I had found the real thing. I listened to that music with my entire being every chance I got that weekend, and for most of my 4 hour drive home.

Back home, I became obsessed with watching Golden Era dancers on youtube--Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, Taheya Carioka, Fifi Abdo, Soheir Zaki, and the list goes on. Full orchestral, classical Egyptian music. Raqs Sharki dance based on the Baladi, which is the urban dance brought to Egyptian cities from the rural areas during the Industrial Revolution. This is the dance of the people, the Mother of Belly Dance. I shocked my students with my sudden change of direction. Luckily, I had not taught them Tribal exclusively. We had focused on that style, and I had taught them solid technique, but I had always incorporated what I knew as Cabaret into my choreographies and instruction in solo technique. In fact, after learning the Baladi Taksim from Bahaia at Island of Isis in 2010, I passed that training on to my students. Combined with what I learned from Hadia, and in light of my conversion experience, the Baladi Taksim is where I began a new direction with my students last May, and we went deeply into it. We are about ready to order sparkly, heavily beaded bras and belts--the standard Cabaret costume--so the transformation is almost complete!

So what I am professing to you here is that the Baladi is the real deal. The Baladi is home base. If you want to call yourself a belly dancer, in my opinion you must endeavor, at some point on your path, to understand the Baladi. In some mystical way that I can't quite explain, my belly dance conversion prepared the way for my recent conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. I have been watching youtube interviews with people who have made this conversion, particularly those who were once Protestant church ministers. I have heard more than once from these men that their former church gave them a good foundation in Christianity, that there was much good and truth in what they had learned, but that in Catholicism they found the fullness of the faith, the missing pieces. That is true to my own experience as well. It is a feeling of coming home.

In a similar way, I think of Tribal belly dance as the foundation I have given to many of my students. Learning that style filled some of the gaps and corrected the awkward posturing and imbalance that I experienced in my first "Egyptian Cabaret" classes. Tribal belly dance contains its own, unique beauty, and many people are drawn to its sense of community. But for me, for the time being at least, the Egyptian Baladi is like coming home. It is most closely connected to the ancient source of this deeply feminine, empowering, spiritual dance, which has been preserved by the people from generation to generation. Thank you, dearest Hadia, and all of my lovely teachers, for this most amazing gift!